If you only take one thing from this post, it should be this: if you have fewer than 10 days in the country, skip the North Island entirely. The South Island contains a majority of the country’s epicness and necessitates more than 10 days in and of itself.
More of a visual learner? Skip right to the pics!
Glad we covered that. Now we can take a step back and talk about your trip to New Zealand.
New Zealand is a destination that routinely tops the bucket list of many a wannabe world-traveler, and with good reason. The country offers a stunning and diverse geography, a surprisingly good culinary scene, a wine industry that is blowing up, and friendly, hospitable, English-speaking natives. And, if you’re coming from the U.S., you get a healthy discount on the dollar (30%+ at the time of this writing) that makes the Kiwis’ high prices bearable.
CAN’T-MISS HIGHLIGHTS: START HERE
- DO: Trek the Milford and/or Routeburn Track. These Great Walks are #lifelisters of the first order. The logistics are a little complex, so plan ahead! If you really want to avoid the crowds, read on!
- DO: Wine taste in the Marlborough Region (superb Sauvignon Blanc) AND the Central Otago Region near Queenstown (delicious Pinot Noir). Hans Herzog Winery in the Marlborough region was our highlight.
- DO: Complete the Tongariro Crossing. This makes the North Island worth it, and is a candidate for one of the best walks in the world.
- SEE: Milford Sound. Rain or shine, this sheer rocky fjord is a magical place. If the weather is nice, the stunning vistas will blow your mind. If the weather is bad, the thousands of ephemeral waterfalls will blow your mind. There is no bad trip to Milford
- EAT: Dinner at the Bunker in Queenstown. Get the venison. Consider grabbing a drink upstairs in their throwback bar – the cocktails are phenomenal.
- EAT: In general, overdose on venison, lamb and the finest New Zealand Pinot and Sauvignon Blanc.
We’ll start with the South Island, because this should be the focus of your trip. We’ll start from the top – geographically – and share our thoughts on what to do.
Picton & Abel Tasman
This region contains a couple of gems – the Marlborough Wine region and beautiful Abel Tasman National Park.
Consider staying in a B&B in the wine town of Blenheim. There are many amazing options. We stayed at one that was more than a B&B – they did dinner too. One of the best meals – venison – of the entire trip. There’s also several amazing free campsites on the Queen Charlotte sound, just outside of Picton, if you’re in the mood to save a few dollars.
What to do with your time? Marlborough has some of the best Sauvignon Blancs in the world, and the region is the one that put New Zealand on the map. Definitely worth a full day wine tasting if you have the time. Beautiful setting, great wine. Our best experiences were at Hans Herzog – best Sauv of the trip for us, plus a great lunch – and Brancott, a place with amazing views and a claim to have started it all.
Beyond the wine, there are a couple outdoorsy activities we strongly recommend:
- Swimming with the dolphins. Take a boat out onto the Queen Victoria Sound. The views are stunning enough by themselves, and the prospect of swimming with dolphins just adds to the fun. Note that you’re not guaranteed to swim with the dolphins, although the hit rate is very high. You’ll need the wetsuit that is provided – the water is cold!
- Sea Kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park. An all-day or half-day trip lets you soak in the beautiful scenery while getting up close and personal with a variety of wildlife, with the playful sea otter being a highlight. Kayaking is doable in a half or full day – we would recommend full over half as it enables you to get further out. We went with this option – solid but pricey. Shop around to see what the latest prices are.
Queenstown (and the area around) is likely to be the highlight of your trip. It’s the outdoor and adventure sports capital of arguably the country in the world that is most into the outdoors and adventure sports.
The options for accommodation run the spectrum from luxury to ultra-budget. If you’re looking to splurge, the Rees Hotel has an amazing location on the lake, with apartment style rooms and suites. You’re outside the hustle and bustle of downtown Queenstown. Stay a night or two (or four) and relax. If you’re looking to go budget, there’s a YHA hostel in town that was a lot of fun for us. See note below on how to make the most of your dollars at YHAs.
Queenstown also has a burgeoning culinary scene. The best meal we had in all of New Zealand was at the Bunker in downtown Queenstown. This intimate restaurant serves up amazing NZ cuisine – get the venison with a bottle of Central Otago Pinot Noir. A few other options for food:
- Fergburger. A legendary burger spot. The line is long and this spot is open late night. If you’re in need of some comfort food, the deluxe burgers from the Ferg really hit the spot
- Vudu Cafe. This cafe is a delicious brunch spot in the middle of downtown Queenstown. Joe’s Garage is another solid breakfast spot that is open early.
A highlight of the Queenstown region is the Routeburn Track. This track is one of NZ’s Great Walks and should be on your list of must-do activities. It’s 32km one way and doable in anywhere from 1-3 days. If you stay overnight, you’ll need hut tickets. Regardless, you’ll need transit from the other side of the trail back to where you started, near Queenstown. The trailhead is over an hour from Queenstown proper, on the Glenorchy road. Don’t leave NZ without doing this walk (or the Milford Track).
What else to do in Queenstown? The options are too numerous – you could easily spend a couple weeks here and not get bored.
- Adventure sports. Bungee jumping, cliff swinging, jet-boating, hang-gliding – the Kiwis do it all. For those into remaining firmly on or near the ground, we would recommend taking a white-water rafting trip on the Shotover River. Class 4-5 rapids deliver an adrenaline shot and the river couldn’t be more scenic.
- Drive the road to Glenorchy, possibly the most beautiful drive in the world. The road west out of Queenstown winds along Lake Wakatipu and has views of some of the most awe-striking mountains in the world. Several scenes from LOTR were filmed in this area – you’ll understand why…
- In the winter: go skiing. There are world-class resorts within 30 minutes of town. The Remarkables and Coronet are two superb options. Even the snobbiest of Rocky Mountain skiers won’t be disappointed.
A little further afield:
- Explore the Central Otago wine region – more wine! Sensing a theme here? This region is most famous for its Pinot Noir, and it doesn’t disappoint. A few that we recommend:
- Peregrine – great Pinot, free tasting.
- Mount Difficulty – a little further out, but definitely worth it for both the Pinot and the Sauv.
- Kinross Country Store – a reseller for a bunch of other wineries. Very fun to taste a variety of wines and have a little snack. Owner works behind the bar – very interesting stories about the history of wine-making in the region.
- Visit Wanaka. This town is billed as a smaller Queenstown without the crowds. It could be a fun place to end your wine crawl through the Central Otago valley.
Milford Sound is a highlight of many a visitor’s trip. The sheer walls of the fjord, the stunning waterfalls, and the vast scale of the Sound will leave you in awe.
If you’re looking to stay in the Sound under a roof, your only option is the Milford Sound Lodge. Luckily, it’s fairly reasonably priced, and offers shared and private rooms. The food will get you though – consider bringing snacks if you don’t want to break the bank.
The highlight of the Milford Sound is unsurprisingly getting out on the Sound itself. A cruise on the Sound (or a heli-tour, if you’re splurging) is the way to go. The best part about Milford is that regardless of the weather you’ll be in for a treat. If it’s sunny (which is rare) you’ll be treated to great visibility and views and if it’s raining you’ll be surprised by the appearance of hundreds of ephemeral waterfalls.
The Milford Track – a highlight of our trip to New Zealand – ends in Milford Sound. The logistics are complicated, but essentially you’ll need to start in Te Anau, two hours back down the road. You’ll need to hire a bus and a boat on each end to complete the circuit, and in-season this 54km walk is mandated to take four nights. Check the Department of Conservation website and plan early. That being said, the walk is totally worth it – you won’t regret it. We have a few hacks on how to avoid the crowds and the DOC mandate – follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our email list to make sure you don’t miss it.
ROAD LESS TRAVELED: Te Anau & Doubtful Sound
Queenstown looks very close to Milford Sound as the crow flies – unfortunately there’s no direct road, and the drive is 4+ hours and requires you to pass through Te Anau. Te Anau is a quirky little town that is still a couple hours from Milford, but represents the last settlement of any size prior to reaching the Sound itself.
Te Anau is where you’ll start your trek if you decide to do the Milford Track. But it also has a little bit of charm in and of itself. Te Anau is the starting point for a visit to Doubtful Sound, which is a lesser known but no less stunning version of the Milford Sound. Originally discovered by Captain Cook, Doubtful Sound can be a compelling alternative to Milford, and offers many of the same sights. Less name recognition, but you get a cruise on Lake Te Anau, a bus ride over the divide into the Sound, a cruise on the Sound all the way out to the ocean, and a stop at a massive underground hydroelectric plant.
Stay at the local YHA (or one of the many hotel or motel options), have a sumptuous-though-overpriced meal at the Fat Duck, and spend the next day exploring Doubtful Sound. This can be a dark horse candidate for a trip highlight.
The North Island
Here’s how you should spend your time on the North Island, if you have enough extra days.
You’ll most likely start in Auckland, port of arrival for most international flights. The city is perfectly comfortable, but not superlative relative to other world-class cities. The real attractions are outside of the city.
Our top Auckland rec is to check out Weiheke Island, where wine country meets semi-tropical island, with a high chance of seeing rainbows and/or dolphins on the ferry-ride over. Having a car on the island is convenient and worth it, so rent there or take a car ferry over. If it’s a weekend, considering doing Poderi Crisci Winery’s long lunch, it’s fairly pricey, but if you are there it is 100% worth it. Amazing.
The North Island’s strongest selling point and MUST DO activity is the Tongariro crossing. This Great Walk takes you on the shoulders of The Lord of the Rings’ Mount Doom (aka Mount Ngauruhoe), winds past stunningly blue alpine lakes, and down through the jungle. Frequent high winds can cancel trips, so consult with the local tourist information center to get the forecast. Consider booking through a guiding company, as having someone else handle logistics is a blessing. Note that the trip is no less stunning once the snow starts falling – it might even get better!
STRAIGHT TALK: LOGISTICS
Getting There: there are direct flights from the West Coast of the United States (LAX and SFO) to Auckland. These flights are a little pricier, so it’s more common to fly indirect, usually through Sydney. One travel hack to consider: considering stopping off on a tropical island (how’s Fiji sound?) on the way to or from Auckland. Fiji Airways flies between Los Angeles and Fiji and Fiji and Auckland. Stringing those flights together can drop below $700. A non-stop one way ticket between Los Angeles and Auckland is around the same price. Hmmmm….
Getting around: New Zealand is a backpacker friendly country, and you can get around via hitchhiking or public transit. That being said, we highly recommend that you rent a car. Having the flexibility to go where you want when you want, to improvise, to change plans at a whim is part of the beauty of traveling in a country like New Zealand.
YHA Hostels: this chain of hostels has a location in most of the places you’ll want to go when in New Zealand. Not fancy, but reliably clean with fun common areas and free wifi. A nominal fee gets you a membership that provides a 10% discount – stay more than a couple nights and you’ll end up saving a nice chunk-o-change.
Freedom camping: New Zealand is a country that is incredibly friendly to backpackers and those who love the outdoors. The country is laced with Department of Conservation (DOC) run campsites. These campsites are well maintained, have bathroom facilities, and usually cost under $10 a night (if not free). Pick up a booklet and a map containing a complete list at one of many DOC outputs in the major towns or download this app. Bring (or buy) a tent!
Booking ahead: with the exception of the Great Walks, most things can be arranged a few days ahead at a local tourist information center, or “i-Site,” or a Department of Conservation visitor center. There are over 80 i-Sites across the country – the people that work there will become your best friends.
Great Walk Trekking: for most of the Great Walks, you’ll need to book ahead. Review the website early to plan your dates. We have a hack for how to avoid the need to book ahead and avoid the crowds – follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our email list to make sure you don’t miss it.
Itinerary: How many days in each place? It’s up to you, but here’s our guess:
- Able Tasman / Picton – 2-3 Days
- Queenstown – 3 Days
- Milford Sound / Routeburn Track / Milford Track – 3-5 Days
- North Island – 2-3 Days
Curious why we call this Making the Most of Your Vacation Days? Want more? Stay tuned!